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Market Is Central to Lancaster's Charm

Lancaster, Pa.'s Central Market has operated on its downtown site since the 1730s.
Lancaster, Pa.'s Central Market has operated on its downtown site since the 1730s. (Carol McCabe)

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By Carol McCabe
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 19, 2008

It's Friday and vendors are working their stands at Lancaster, Pa.'s Central Market. Behind the German deli case, Jim Wittenauer weighs a hank of weisswurst sausages as his customer weighs adding some smoked krakauer to the bundle. At Daniel Stoltzfus's stand, a woman with the scrubbed face and quiet garb of a Mennonite offers a jar of Esther Sangrey's chowchow vegetable relish, winner of blue ribbons at three county fairs. And nearby, a stroller-pushing young mom buys two snickerdoodles from Willow Valley Baked Goods. As the slogan on a passing T-shirt says, "Resistance Is Futile."

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On this warm September day, shoppers flow through the 13 towering double doors of the country's oldest farmer's market, continuously operated on this site since the 1730s. Central Market is at the heart of a city that rose from one of America's richest agricultural plains, a popular destination not only for hungry locals but for visitors touring Lancaster's many historic sites.

"Never saw such profusion," wrote William Cobbett, an English pamphleteer who visited in 1819. As a walk through these aisles of Lancaster County's abundance demonstrates, his word still applies. "Profusion" means squash, apples, liverwurst, Muscovy ducks, hams, golden noodles, scrapple, fruit licorice, Limburger cheese, peach jam, dried corn, dried flowers, bread pudding, chicken pie and shoofly pie, "a gooey pie with a cakelike top," according to a sign at Wendy Jo's Homemade. Profusion means the head-clearing horseradish root that Michael Long grinds each day at the stand his family has operated since the 1930s. It also means the Ugandan chicken in curry sauce at Rafiki's Deli, one of the more recent vendors reflecting a changing population. Market master Michael Ervin estimates that only about 15 percent of today's vendors are Amish.

Many of Lancaster's historic buildings are in active use, none more active than Central Market, a connection between past and present, rural and urban Lancaster County. The Romanesque Revival building, with its 72-foot towers and terra cotta finials, was built in 1889 adjacent to what's now Penn Square. The square is the site of Lancaster County's original courthouse, where, on Sept. 27, 1777, the Continental Congress met after fleeing the British, making Lancaster the American capital for one day. A market neighbor that still stands is the Old City Hall. Built in 1795, it is the city's only surviving 18th-century public building, housing the Heritage Center Museum of Lancaster County.

Only blocks from Penn Square is the neighborhood known as Old Town, with its blocks of rowhouses and pocket gardens. On a recent walkabout, Jennie Renkin, who has been leading walking tours of Lancaster for 33 years, explained some local terms. "Quarter houses" are 12 feet wide by 50 to 60 feet long, a quarter of a city lot, eight lots to a city block. Milton Hershey bought one of them for his mother when he owned a caramel factory here before becoming a chocolatier. Renkin pointed out the characteristic balconies known as "Conestogas," named after the wagons developed by Swiss-German farmers in the early 18th century.

Renkin directs her tour's attention upward, to the steeple 195 feet above Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Lancaster's only surviving 18th-century religious building. When that steeple was completed in 1794, it was the second tallest structure in North America: Only Philadelphia's Christ Church had a taller spire.

Among other historic sites near Penn Square is one on King Street where James Buchanan, Lancaster's most famous son, practiced law. Buchanan became a congressman at 29; later served as a senator, minister to Russia, ambassador to Great Britain and secretary of state; and ultimately became 15th president of the United States.

A short drive from Penn Square, Wheatland, Buchanan's home until his death in 1868, crowns a Lancaster neighborhood of tall trees and handsome houses. Impressively restored, the house is open for tours. One guide, Don Walters, is a costumed Buchanan look-alike with his flossy white hair and high collar. A retired Temple University professor, he uses each each room in the mansion to tell a chapter of the social and political history of America. On my Wheatland tour, the library triggered a discussion of the literature of Buchanan's era, touching on Victor Hugo, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and the impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" on its era.

But in Lancaster, no conversation seems to stray far from food. Walters's description of Buchanan's inauguration included a recital of the food served at his reception: "venison, oysters, ham, lots of ice cream, a four-foot-high cake and 125 [beef] tongues." William Cobbett might call that a profusion.


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